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Tedious, but satisfying
Hay River woman uses fish scales to create works of art

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bonnie Crowther has an unusual and even a tedious craft for a hobby.

NNSL photo/graphic

Bonnie Crowther of Hay River displays two samples of her fish-scale art. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

However, she also finds it relaxing and very satisfying.

The Hay River woman uses dyed fish scales to create images of flowers in remarkably attractive works of art.

"You would never envision a flower from that, and I think it just caught my eye because it was so different," she said. "Unless you see a finished product, you would never believe that could be done out of fish scales."

Crowther, 56, became interested in fish-scale art more than a decade ago after seeing an example of the craft owned by a friend in Hay River, where she has lived since she was a child.

"I decided to try it, and over the years I've kind of developed my own style," she said.

As far as she knows, there is only one other person in the Hay River area who does the craft as a hobby.

"It's not a common craft at all," said Crowther, who is of Cree heritage and originally from Manitoba.

"I think one of the reasons that not so many people do it is it's very tedious," she explained. "It takes a lot of time. You could never sell it for the amount of time you put into it."

It usually takes Crowther, who works as a correctional officer supervisor, about eight hours to create each piece of art.

"That's the actual making of that piece," she noted. "That's not the processing of the scales and vertebra. That's all separate."

She said each piece of work she creates uses about 100 scales. As the average fish she uses has around one thousand scales, Crowther said she can make a few pieces from a single catch. One fish also gives her enough vertebra and rib material for two or three creations.

As for why she does it, she said she finds it really satisfying.

"When I sit down to do it, it's really relaxing and I'm always excited to see the finished product," she said. "I have in my head basically what the piece is going to look like, but then, once I start, it sometimes goes in a totally different direction. So the piece turns out different than what I had first imagined. I find it exciting to be able to see what it turns out like."

Crowther can't go to a craft store to buy her supplies mainly whitefish scales for petals, pickerel scales for leaves and vertebra for stems.

"Sometimes I go down to the river and I fish," she said, adding she and her husband eat the fish and save the scales. "So everything is used."

While she creates images of flowers, which is the common style for the craft, Crowther has some other ideas, but has not yet had time to try to create them.

"It's a matter of getting the right types of scales for them," she said. "I wanted to try a peacock and I got my mother to send me some carp scales from Manitoba. They're really big scales, and I thought I could use those for the plumage, but when I dried them they curled right up into a cylinder, so they didn't work."

On the Internet, she has even seen some fish-scale art in the form of broaches and jewelry.

Each year, Crowther offers one of her fish art creations as a prize for someone sponsoring her in the CIBC Run for Our Lives, a fundraising event for breast cancer research, education and awareness set for Sept. 18 in Hay River.

On Sept. 3, she also displayed her work for the first time at the Hay River Fisherman's Wharf open market and hopes to have enough ready for an annual crafts sale just before Christmas.

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